Other than Andy Dalton at quarterback, the Bears don’t look much different than the team that went 8-8 last season. And Dalton’s last few seasons call into question whether he’s an upgrade over Mitch Trubisky.
There are still spare parts to scoop up in free agency and the Bears have three valuable draft picks at the end of the month, but the bulk of their offseason renovations are done. And in the end, it’s very difficult to make the case that they’ve positioned themselves to jump from backsliding into the playoffs at 8-8 to being a legitimate contender.
That argument is so beyond believability, in fact, that general manager Ryan Pace isn’t trying to sell it. Instead, he’s out to explain the limitations that led to a lackluster offseason highlighted by the signing of Andy Dalton — a quarterback who would be a backup on almost any other team.
“We challenged ourselves in free agency, really with limited space, to get better, and I thought our pro scouts and our coaches did a really good job adding valuable pieces,” Pace said Friday. “Were we big spenders in free agency? No. But I thought we addressed a lot of needs.”
He started by mentioning that he re-signed kicker Cairo Santos, offensive lineman Germain Ifedi (likely a backup if they land an instant starter in the draft) and backup defensive lineman Mario Edwards. The Bears also kept wide receiver Allen Robinson by using the franchise tag against his wishes.
From there, he listed his offseason treasures: Angelo Blackson, Jeremiah Attaochu, Desmond Trufant, Christian Jones, Elijah Wilkinson, Damien Williams.
Which of those names excites you? How many had you even heard before?
The name that would’ve made a difference is Russell Wilson. He would’ve fast-tracked the Bears to Super Bowl contention. Without him, even Pace seems to accept that expectations for next season need to be recalibrated.
He is banking on meaningful improvement from young players like tight end Cole Kmet, wide receiver Darnell Mooney and running back David Montgomery. While it’s reasonable to expect those players to develop, none are surefire stars.
In reality, everything seems to be riding on one offseason move: Dalton. And there’s justifiable debate over how much better he is than Mitch Trubisky, if at all. The Bears seem certain he’s more than a micro-upgrade despite his 86.5 passer rating over the last five seasons.
At 33, Dalton’s high end is to be serviceable. That might be enough for the Bears to be decent and sneak into the playoffs again, and chairman George McCaskey will have to decide whether he accepts that as sufficient progress to keep Pace and let him oversee what is — if they’re even on the right course to begin with — a multi-year timeline for the team to be legitimately relevant.
That idea can’t sit well with anyone who has watched the Bears meander to 42-54 and no playoff wins under Pace’s watch the last six seasons.
Keep in mind that Pace is referring to two things when he talks about the obstacles the Bears faced this offseason. The first is the drastically reduced salary cap that affected every team in the NFL, not just his. The second is that the Bears would’ve been tight on space anyway because several of his ill-fated decisions.
Big misses on Trubisky and Nick Foles at quarterback have proven expensive. Outside linebacker Robert Quinn, who had two sacks in 548 snaps last season, has the second-biggest salary-cap hit on the team next season. Mistakes at tight end and on the offensive line were costly, too.
And next thing you know, Kyle Fuller, one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, is out the door. The Bears can’t afford him on their ledger, but they also probably can’t afford to go without him on the field. Expect a thank-you card from Aaron Rodgers.
If the Bears are better than they were when they trudged out of the Superdome three months ago, that improvement could be measured in millimeters. And that leaves a long way to go.